Friday, December 16, 2011

Meghalaya and Sikkim Revisited


I promised to keep in touch with Deepa and the fam while 640km away in the Meghalayan coalfields, and then I was off for a part beautiful/part dusty-as-hell motorcycle ride to Siliguri to embark on the train and jeep rides that would eventually land me in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The cramped, bouncy jeep ride from Guwahati was informative in a few ways. First, I kept noticing the Jhue form of slash-and-burn hillside agriculture that I had briefly read about on the internet. While it has been officially outlawed, as with most things in India enforcement is virtually nonexistent. This traditional tribal practice made sense when population pressures were much lower and before modernization brought things like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but the method of cutting and burning all the vegetation on a steep hillside and then planting in rows that run down the slope is wreaking havoc on soil and water quality throughout the region. Second, I almost couldn't believe the intensely congested traffic, and the fact that it seemed to be almost solely due to the number of ridiculously painted coal trucks trying to squeeze past each other on the pathetically underbuilt roads.

After taking 4 hours to drive about 60 miles, I finally reached Shillong and met up with Bijoyeta (check out her work at www.bijoyetadas.com) and spent the night with her awesome friend David and his family. Bijoyeta is originally from Guwahati and makes a living by creating photographic stories on everything from Bangladeshi sweatshop workers to the mines we were about to go to, and David is a Khasi who teaches at a nearby college. The Khasi people are the natives of this part of Meghalaya and look very distinct from other peoples; somewhere between Burmese and Indian with something else thrown in. They're also a matrilineal group that has historically given females much greater power and responsibility than many other traditional societies. We started off toward the coal-producing Jhantia Hills the next morning to meet with the contact who would be putting us up.

Bijoyeta's father, a lawyer, had a client who apparently owed him some favors so this coal trader fellow from Bihar agreed to put us up and take us to one of the mines that he buys coal from. I can't remember his name, but I came to know him simply as "The Loudest Man in the World" due to the extreme volumes at which he normally talked. He wasn't shouting or angry, he was just really, really loud. The hovel of an apartment he shared with us was surrounded by a very weird little outpost of a town that consisted of a state-of-the-art petrol station, a constant stream of wildly painted coal trucks passing by, piles of coal everywhere, and a handful of liquor stores, knick knack shops, and brothels. Lots of people could be seen loading the piles of coal into trucks by hand throughout most parts of the day, many of them women in the local traditional dress which (no offense) looked oddly similar to a checkerboard table cloth.

We went straight to the coal mine the next morning, and I'll be damned if it wasn't the craziest looking mine I'd ever seen. A 300ish foot deep vertical shaft with a makeshift bamboo ladder led down to the coal seam, and a very simple diesel engine-operated crane lowered a giant metal bucket down into the mine which the workers filled by hand. It was then lifted out, dumped on the ground, and hand-loaded into the waiting trucks by the three or four dozen workers standing around. Why they didn't just dump the coal directly into the trucks, I'll never know. This was all surrounded by something of a ramshackle rusty tin slum that served as worker housing.

Bijoyeta and I climbed into the bucket and were lowered down into the pit; it was pretty amusing to see how scared she got while I attempted to play it cool (the rust holes in the bottom did freak me out a bit though). We must have hung out down there for 4-5 hours. She took a lot of pictures, and I ended up feeling bad for the workers as I knew they were getting paid by the bucketload and our intrusion was basically lowering their wages for the day. I tried to allay my guilt by grabbing an unused shovel and working as hard as I could to help load the coal. The one manager-type guy did his best to convince me not to do it as they were convinced that a white European fellow would get injured trying to do this kind of work, but I assured them I'd done this before and that I'd be fine. It had actually been about 5 years since I'd worked in the mines, and I could definitely feel it the next day! I could tell that the other shovelers appreciated it, and I wished that we didn't have a language barrier between us.

As Bijoyeta and I talked to the workers, owners, and locals to investigate the issues around this recent boom in mining, it turned out to not be a very black-and-white story. The Indian constitution guarantees that tribal lands in the Northeast territories can only be transferred to other tribals, so outsider interests are basically unable to come in and snatch up the land the way they have in Appalachia and Jharkhand. The Jhantia (closely related to Khasi) families who have leased their land to be mined have benefited greatly economically, and most of them have built newer, nicer homes near Shillong and let managers from Bihar and other plains parts of India come in to manage the actual mining. All of the underground workers are Bangladeshi or Nepali migrants (probably illegal), but according to them their daily wages (about $17) were way higher than what manual laborers make in almost any other part of India (around $3/day). No locals worked underground, but quite a few Khasi and Jhantias worked aboveground loading the trucks alongside the Bangladeshis; weirdly, all of the local laborers I saw were women. Of course according to the managers there's no environmental damage from this mining whatsoever, but I'm sure the water quality is being wrecked at the least. With Bijoyeta as translator I asked one of the loader girls if she thought this whole coal boom was good or bad for the area; after some uncomfortable hesitation and looking out past a panorama of coal piles atop orange-stained earth, she said that overall it's not good.

We spent the rest of the day hanging out with and taking pictures of the coal loaders back near the apartment, and they were awesome. Super friendly, funny, and obviously getting a kick out of being rock stars for a day. Back in Shillong by the next morning, I had to figure out what to do with myself for the next few days while Bijoyeta went off on an unrelated shoot. I went to a nearby museum focused on the tribal history of the region, but it quickly became apparent that this was a very missionary-centric establishment. Nevertheless it was interesting despite some fairly condescending moments and a very annoying endorsement of chemical-based agriculture as an improvement. I'd heard about a "sacred forest" in the nearby area which was supposed to be very eerie; I once again lucked out by getting hooked up with a friend of a friend who would take me on his motorbike for the cost of gas and a meal. This place was definitely weird; it's hard to describe the haunted feeling I got from the bizarrely twisted roots, ancient stone monoliths, and a charred, gnarled, blackened tree where no other evidence of fire was present.

I should point out that my geeky video game-saturated childhood caused me to constantly think of myself in the middle of a Legend of Zelda world as I navigated through all of these random places in rural India. The next day only augmented that experience as I caught a couple of jeeps into the south to see a living root bridge in "Asia's cleanest village" (not sure how that rating system worked out). Somehow people realized hundreds of years ago that they could train the roots of living trees to traverse the span across a river, and the result is otherworldly to behold. I traveled from this to a treetop viewpoint platform made only of bamboo that looked over into Bangladesh, and from here into a random village that had a weird little hut that sold homemade rice liquor through a window with metal bars. A friend of mine did a painting of something very similar that we used to have in Appalachia for selling moonshine, called a Blind Tiger. I finished the day off with an Indiana Jones style foray to find a mysterious waterfall I'd been hearing about; apparently there was no marked trail and you had to know just the right place to veer off the main road and then trudge through some leach infested jungle. Somehow I found it and managed to not even get a single leach on me and met a really nice local dude who surprisingly spoke fairly decent English.

The very last stop on the Meghalaya tour was the Rural Resources Training Center, a very inspiring project that was another example of the unexpected indigenous missionary work that was much more about community benefit than indoctrination. A priest from Jharkhand who was closely affiliated with the Kurux school I visited near Dumri had started this project several years ago, and they've evolved into teaching innovative organic farming and social entrepreneurship skills to young people throughout the Northeast. They had a very impressive campus with several different growing and processing centers for everything from trees, vegetables, livestock, and fish. All of the teachers and staff that I saw were locals, and it seemed to be mostly people from nearby Nagaland that were staying in the dorms at the time. Father Cyril gave me an excellent tour of the place and I only regret not spending more time here. I'm still hoping I can make some connections between this place and Berea College, maybe even for some study abroad internships.

A few more random notes about Meghalaya and the Northeast before I finish with it...One of the weirdest trends I saw here was the tendency to put reflective tinting on your car's front windshield to the point that you only had a tiny Robocop-style slit to see through. I cannot understand why this is cool or legal. Like Jharkhand, this was also a highly missionized "tribal" area, meaning that there was a major Christian influence in the area. It certainly played out differently though, largely because the indigenous people had never been Hindu and never had such a rigid social structure, especially regarding coupling and marriage. Similarly to Darjeeling, there seemed to be a lot of Western-style hipstery folks here too, and I'd been told this was common to other Northeast states such as Nagaland and Aranuchal Pradesh. Unfortunately I wouldn't get to find out as my visa ended in a week.

Yet another harrowing train adventure delivered me to my waiting Bullet motorbike in Siliguri, though this time I got to share the tiny wooden luggage rack with another fellow as a sleeping surface. Moral of the story: you can't travel seat-of-the-pants in India and not expect to have somebody's feet in your face while you sleep (i.e. general class SUCKS, book ahead at least 2 weeks on www.cleartrip.com). I made my final voyage on the lovingly titled Shit Rocket (the motorbike) to spend my last week with my adopted family at Banjakhri Falls. Besides giving some final renewable energy museum tours and hanging out a bit with the saintly but slightly mentally handicapped family gardener Gophli, I went with Deepa to meet her parents in a small mountainside village about 20 miles down the road. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place to grow up. Her family's house overlooked a deep Himalayan gorge with snowcapped mountains rising in the distance, and her father's side of the family had organically farmed this terraced hillside for many generations. All of the nearby extended family was extremely warm and generous, and somehow her mother completely cured me of a nasty cold I was developing with a homemade tincture.

Nothing I can say at this point would do the experience justice or seem uncliched. Basically I was strongly invited to come back there once my wait period was over (India makes you wait 2 months before reapplying for a visa) and live there permanently. I can't describe how tempting this was, and is. Sikkim is probably the most beautiful place I've ever been, with equally beautiful people. The entire state uses almost only organic farming and almost all of their power comes from renewable sources. I could have joined the family tradition of being a mountainside farmer, or even kept working on and improving the renewable energy aspects of Banjakhri Falls. And yeah, Deepa had a bit to do with it.

Regardless, I sold my motorbike, got a jeep to Siliguri then a train to Kolkatta, and spent an unfulfilling touristy day looking at the remains of the pompous British legacy in their former colonial capitol. I didn't know where else to go and had found a cheap ticket to Thailand a week or so ago; I had some contacts there from a human rights project in my home of Floyd County, Kentucky, so I figured I'd go see what's up with the mineral mining in north Thailand. With a heavy heart I boarded the plane on the very last day of my 6 month visa.

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